The Los Angeles Clippers have taken full control of their second-round series with the Denver Nuggets by capitalizing off a terrific start, and cruising to a 96-85 victory in Game 5 to take a 3-1 series lead. The Clippers are now just one win away from their first conference finals trip in franchise history.
It took the Clippers only about eight minutes to build a double-digit lead, and they maintained that advantage for much of the game. Kawhi Leonard dominated, finishing with 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for a near triple-double, while Montrezl Harrell came off the bench to chip in 15.
Nikola Jokic did his thing, nearly recording a triple-double of his own with 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but he didn't get any help. Jamal Murray, in particular, had a tough night, going for 18 points on 6-of-15 from the field. As a team, the Nuggets shot 39.7 percent and turned the ball over 14 times.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
This was not an offensive masterpiece from the Clippers. They shot 41.8 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from 3-point land and had to grind out 30 free-throw attempts to keep their offense afloat. On nights like that, you need your best player more than ever, and Kawhi Leonard delivered.
He put the Clippers on his back, dropping a smooth 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, to go along with four steals and two blocks. It was just another steady performance from the reigning Finals MVP, who always seems to be in complete control. Nothing fazes him, not the moment nor the opposing team.
It was his sixth 30-point game in 10 outings this postseason, and Leonard is now putting up 29.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game, while shooting 51.5 percent. The Game 2 loss to the Nuggets was his only bad game so far, and he's proving once again that he's the best player in the league come playoff time.
With Leonard playing like this, it's going to be tough to beat the Clippers four times in a series.
Clippers make life difficult for Murray
The Clippers had a mediocre offensive game, but they still won by double digits because of their efforts on the defensive end. They limited the Nuggets to 39.7 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers. In particular, they made life extremely difficult for young Nuggets star Jamal Murray.
Murray was tremendous against the Jazz in the first round, putting together some historic performances. In this series, though, he's only managing 17.8 points per game and 38.2 percent shooting. That trend continued in Game 4, as he finished with 18 points on 6 of 15 from the field.
While the Clippers aren't always the most consistent team on the defensive end, they do have some elite perimeter defenders in Patrick Beverley and Leonard, and they combined to make sure Murray never had a break. Just take these sequences in the third quarter, for example.
Beverley chases Murray around screens, harasses him on the drive and forces a tough layup that Murray misses.
A few minutes later, he has Leonard in his face, and gets so flustered he turns it over.
Murray and Jokic are responsible for half of Denver's points in the postseason, and when one of them is getting contained like this, they just have no chance.
Clippers on the brink of history
The Game 4 win gave the Clippers a 3-1 lead in this series, which puts them not only in complete control, but on the brink of history. One more win, and they'll be on to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Dating back to their debut in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, the Clippers have never been past the second round of the playoffs. In fact, they've only managed to win six playoff series in that entire time, and that includes their first-round triumph over the Mavericks. Their 50-year conference finals drought is the longest in the NBA.
Assuming the Clippers get the job done at some point in the next few games, the Atlanta Hawks (44 years) will take over the unflattering title, with the Washington Wizards (41 years) not far behind.